Early Chinese Drama
Various forms of drama have thrived in China throughout its history. As far back as the Zhou Dynasty (1046? BCE - 256 BCE) there are records of court dances that sometimes combined singing, dancing, and exotic costumes. Around the fifth century BCE a court jester known as You Meng is supposed to have dressed up as a deceased prime minister, imitating his actions and speech as well as his clothing. Due to this feat, he is sometimes considered the first Chinese actor.
The Zhou Empire fell after losing its capital city of Chengzhou in 256 BCE, and a period of instability followed. A relative sense of order was restored after the Battle of Gaixia in 202 BCE, establishing the primacy of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 of the current era). Tombs from the Han period frequently portray courtly entertainments, including dancers, wrestlers, and costumed performers, sometimes dressed as horned animals. Following the Battle of Red Cliffs in 208 of the current era, Han power became fractured. During the succession of minor dynasties that followed, jesters like You Meng continued to find employment, and as Buddhism arrived in China, it is possible that the Chinese might have been exposed to Sanskrit drama as well.
In 618, the charismatic military leader Li Yuan, with the aid of his daughter, the warrior princess Pingyang, declared himself Emperor Gaozu, establishing the rule of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Tang emperors became great patrons of the theatre, particularly Xuanzong, who ruled from 712-756. Xuanzong even established a school in his pear orchard to train young men and women in how to sing. From around the reign of Xuanzong, we also have an account of a play called Stepping and Singing Woman in which a man dressed as a woman slowly stepped onstage singing a lament about her abusive husband. A man playing the husband then came on and beat his wife in a comical manner, to the laughter and cheers of the audience.
Though men sometimes played female roles, women also acted in Tang drama, sometimes even taking on male roles. The arrival of Buddhism in China also brought tales that performers partly spoke and partly sang known as bianwen. These were frequently on Buddhist themes, but there were secular bianwen as well. The stories of the bianwen later provided the plots for a number of Chinese dramas. Other plays took their plots from stories of strange events known as marvel tales, which became popular during the Tang period.
Following another period of instability after the fall of the Tang Dynasty, the Song Dynasty (960-1279) gained control over much of China. It is under the Song rulers that China developed what we would recognize today as fully developed plays. These dramas were known as zaju, meaning "mixed drama." They likely combined a number of earlier dramatic forms and featured singing, speaking, dancing, acrobatics and skilled acting. A similar theatrical form known as yuanben emerged in northern China, which was ruled by the rival Jin Dynasty, but zaju was the more important of the two forms.
Early zaju had at least four to five performers with an actor-director known as the moni organizing them. Actors sometimes wore masks and at other times make up. There was also a flute player, known as the base, to provide important melodies. Though actors tended to be looked down upon, zaju dramas were quite popular, flourishing in public theatres as well as at court as royal entertainments. Still, few great learned poets of the Song Dynasty would even think of stooping so low as to actually write for the stage. It would take a history-changing event to get Chinese writers to take zaju seriously.
The Mongol Invasion
In the early 13th century the Mongol chieftain Temujin, later known as Genghis Khan, defeated all of the rival Mongol tribes and embarked upon a series of conquests that led to the creation of the largest contiguous land empire the world has ever known. When his grandson Mengu Khan died campaigning against the Song Dynasty, the Mongol Empire broke apart, with one of Mengu's brothers, Arik Buka, securing the Mongol homeland while another brother, Kublai Khan, took charge of the outer empire.
Kublai Khan proceeded to conquer the Jin Dynasty in the north and then the Song Dynasty in the south. By 1280, he was the undisputed master of all China, instituting a period of Mongol rule known as the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The Mongols had their own theatrical traditions and greatly valued public performers. When one Mongol general took charge of a part of Jin territory, he reportedly ordered all of its inhabitants to be slaughtered with the exception of artisans and actors.
One thing the Mongols did not like, however, was bureaucracy. The Chinese had developed a system of rigorous examinations all public officials had to pass. The exams tested knowledge of the classics of Chinese literature and philosophy. Since passing the exams was mandatory for government service, the governing classes during the Song Dynasty were an educated elite. They had to be versed in poetry as well as the management of the state. This was not true under the Mongols.
The Mongols appointed government officials based on kinship or loyalty in battle, not on their knowledge of Chinese classics. Intellectuals under the Yuan Dynasty were all too often overeducated and out of work. At the same time, the Mongols lavished public funds on spectacles and performance, including zaju. To support themselves, China's greatest poets were forced to write for the theatre.
These reluctant playwrights also had a considerable axe to grind with the ruling Yuan Dynasty. They viewed them as foreign invaders, hopelessly corrupt, and immune to any sense of justice. Yuan zaju plays could not openly challenge the regime, but they included sly references to current events and registered a staunch protest to political conditions. Though usually set in a distant past, they critiqued Mongol rule and pleaded for change. Whether or not the Mongols recognized how seditious these plays sometimes were, other intellectuals no doubt picked up on this quiet (and sometimes not-so-quiet) protest.
The play Li Kui Carries Thorns demonstrates how subversive zaju could be. The play is attributed to Kang Jinzhi, who flourished around 1280, when Kublai Khan was solidifying his control of China. Known as the "Black Whirlwind," Li Kui is a bandit-hero from Chinese legend similar to Robin Hood. He fights alongside Song Jiang, the leader of the bandits, and Lu Zhishen, a former army officer who became a Buddhist monk (but in spite of his religious conversion still allies himself with the bandits).
In the play, two ruffians impersonate Song and Lu and run off with the daughter of an old wine seller. Li Kui finds out about this and accuses the real Song and Lu of the deed. When Song denies the charge, both men wager their heads that they are telling the truth. The impostors return with the daughter and the wine seller gets them drunk so they can be captured, but Li Kui has lost the bet. He carries a thorn branch to Song and urges him to beat him rather than chop off his head. Ultimately, Song is magnanimous, Li Kui is pardoned, the daughter is restored to the wine merchant, and the impostors are disemboweled, their decapitated heads then placed on display as a warning for others.
Li Kui Carries Thorns elevates bandits to the role of heroes, which might be read as subversive. Moreover, while Song is the local authority in the play, others acting in his name are committing abuses. This could be a comment on the type of current events going on in China, when any Mongol claiming the authority of the government might rape and steal with impunity. There is a third level of meaning, though. Song Jiang (whose name resembles that of the old dynasty) is being imitated by an impostor. The impostor has no rightful authority and uses his power to take what does not belong to him. The only thing to be done to such usurpers is to disembowel them and chop off their heads! Read in this manner, Li Kui Carries Thorns is little short of treason.
Zaju plays generally had four acts. Each act focused on a single character, and within that act, only that one character was supposed to sing. Though not all of the dialogue rhymed, all of the rhymes in a single act were supposed to have the same sound ending. Sometimes, more than a hundred words in a single act all rhymed, a feat less impressive in Chinese than in English. A scene known as a wedge could come before an act, elaborating on the action of the play and leading into the next scene. In the wedge, the strict rules governing the continuity of the act need not apply.
Performances could be at court or in public areas for the general populace. While traveling, zaju performers often built their own temporary stages out of mats, but we also have depictions of permanent stages with tile floors, covered roofs, and elaborate curtains hanging at the back of the stage. Major cities had entertainment districts where some of these permanent theatres could be found. In rural areas, temples sometimes sponsored performances and could have built their own smaller permanent theatres. Troupes put up advertising banners to promote their plays. These were made of paper and used multiple colors to attract attention.
Some zaju indicate ways for the curtains to be used as part of the play, such as to hide individuals or to open up and reveal someone or something. In addition to the curtains, the stage typically had a table and benches that could be used in the play. These might also have taken the place of desks, beds, even the ramparts of a city wall. Several zaju also call for props, including chess sets, scepters, and cudgels. Occasionally, plays call for elaborate stage effects, such as stringing characters up on a tree while they (frequently) continue to sing. It is unclear how Yuan actors staged such scenes.
In addition to the flute, zaju plays used plucked string instruments, including a lute and a zither. Drums and other percussion instruments could also be played. While some zaju call for instruments to be played onstage, there was also a separate area known as the music crib, which held both the musicians and (at least sometimes) female performers while they were not onstage. The placement of actresses in a separate area where they could always be on display to the audience could be an indication that they were also available as prostitutes, a sign of the low position of actors in Chinese society at the time.
The main female role was known as the dan. The leading male role was called the mo, or in the case of a young man, sometimes the sheng. The clown was known as the chou. Performers who painted their faces were sometimes referred to as the hua. Barbarians and demons tended to have particularly elaborate make-up. A particular type of hua, the ching, wore black and white make-up and played evil and sometimes comic characters.
It seems that audiences immediately recognized stock figures, and performers tended to specialize in certain types. They were often aided in their acting by elaborate costumes and headgear. One period source lists 46 types of headgear for male roles alone. Slapstick often played a major role, so actors had to be versed acrobatics and physical comedy as well as singing, dancing, and playing music.
Major Yuan Playwrights
The names of a great many Yuan playwrights come down to us thanks to a book by the 14th century writer Lu-kuei Pu called The Register of Ghosts. The book lists 56 early dramatists that were still popular as well as additional later playwrights that had not yet proven their endurance. It also lists the place where each playwright came from and the number of plays he had written. Among the poets listed as the 56 "talents" in Chinese drama are Guan Hanqing, Ma Zhiyuan, and Wang Shifu.
Guan Hanqing is by far the most prolific of the early Yuan dramatist. Of his 58 plays, 14 are still extant. He is best known for The Injustice to Dou E, which is sometimes given the title Snow in Midsummer. The play tells the story of the titular widow, Dou E, who refuses to have sex with a man and so is framed by him for murder. At her execution, she prays for three miracles so heaven can prove that she is innocent. After she dies, the three miracles, including snow in midsummer, all occur.
Ma Zhiyuan allegedly wrote 15 plays, seven of which survive, including Autumn in Han Palace and The Yellow Millet Dream. The latter play tells a story about the legendary Lu Dongbin, revered by Daoists as one of the Eight Immortals. According to legend, Lu fell asleep while cooking some yellow millet and had a shocking dream in which he was given an imperial office, then promoted again and again until he became prime minister. In spite of this success, however, he ended up miserable in the dream, removed from office, betrayed by his wife, and with his children murdered by bandits. Upon awaking, Lu resolved to cultivate philosophy rather than pursue glory, putting him on the path to immortality.
According to The Register of Ghosts, Wang Shifu wrote 14 plays. Only three of these are extant, the most important being The Story of the Western Chamber. Still popular today, this romantic comedy is set during the Tang Dynasty and concerns two lovers who are kept apart by the young woman's parents. With the help of a maid, they consummate their love in secret. When the woman's parents find out, they tell her lover he can marry her only if he passes the civil service examination (the same examination disregarded by the Mongol rulers). He passes the exam with flying colors, leading to a happy ending.
A one-hit-wonder mentioned in The Register of Ghosts is Li Qianfu. Thankfully, his one play, Circle of Chalk, has survived. The play, which involves a Solomon-like test to determine the true mother of a child, has proven an enduring fascination for the West. The play was produced in London in 1929 starring the American actress Anna May Wong with a young Laurence Olivier in a minor role. It was also the basis for the plays The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht and Full Circle (also known as The Berlin Circle) by Charles Mee.
Chalk Circle was available to the West in translation beginning in 1832, but it was not the first Yuan play to become popular in Europe. The Orphan of Zhao by Ji Junxiang swept across the West a century earlier after being translated into French by a Jesuit priest in 1731. Perhaps sensing the political possibilities inherent in all zaju drama, the British playwright William Hatchett adapted the play in 1741 as The Chinese Orphan, turning it into an attack on the politician Sir Robert Walpole. Voltaire wrote an even more famous adaptation, The Orphan of China, in 1753. The Orphan of Zhao, in its many incarnations, remains popular in the West today.
Zaju was not the only form of drama popular during the Yuan period. A genre called Southern Drama or nanxi continued to thrive in the south of the country, even as zaju dominated the capital and the region to the north. These plays are sometimes referred to as zaju, and some scholars consider nanxi to be a sub-genre of zaju.
Unfortunately, few nanxi texts survive. In general, they seem to be much more loose in form. They tend to have shorter acts, but more of them, so the person singing shifts more frequently. Nanxi also included mimed scenes where the story was told primarily through physical actions rather than words. Also, they contained a variety of rhymes in each act.
One nanxi that tells us a great deal about the theatre of the time is Grandee's Son Takes the Wrong Career. This anonymous play from the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century tells the story of the son of an assistant prefect who falls in love with an actress and runs away with her family to pursue a life of the stage. According to the play, actors traveled around the provinces, performing wherever they could. Local officials could command performances, but sometimes they would only request a few songs from plays rather than a complete drama.
The most famous nanxi is The Lute by Gao Ming. Sometimes considered a tragicomedy, The Lute tells the story of an abandoned wife who wanders around as a traveling musician in an attempt to find her wayward husband. The play was still fresh when the Yuan Dynasty collapsed in 1368 and was replaced with the native Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Hongwu, the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, apparently took a personal liking to The Lute, which used melodies indicative of the southern region of China and was thus considered more "pure" than northern zaju, which was influenced by the old Mongol rulers. Throughout the Ming Dynasty, The Lute was considered a model drama.
Like Chalk Circle and The Orphan of Zhou, The Lute has proven popular in the West as well. Most famously, it was turned into the Broadway musical Lute Song in 1946, starring Mary Martin and Yul Brenner.
Chinese Drama After the Yuan Period
The Ming Dynasty ushered in a new era for China, and many historians have looked back on the period as a Golden Age. We know of more than 400 playwrights from the Ming Dynasty, and they produced more than 1,500 plays. Yuan drama laid the groundwork for all classical Chinese drama that was to come. However, it was Ming drama that forged the operatic traditions that became what we know today as traditional Chinese theatre.
Ming emperors restored the civil service exams (which had already made a comeback in the waning days of the Yuan Dynasty), giving intellectuals a greater role in government again. However, they also ruled despotically, doing away with the position of prime minister and seizing the reins of government themselves. Laws prohibited the impersonation of emperors and other great leaders on the stage, unless they were shown to be exemplary individuals without fault. The political and social criticism that was a hallmark of Yuan drama withered away. What remained was a shimmering and polished form devoid of the meaning that had once given it power.
As the economic and political power base of the Ming Dynasty was in the south, it should come as no surprise that nanxi became the more favored plays. Gradually, these southern dramas evolved into a form called chuanqi, which took their name from the Marvel Tales of earlier periods. In chuanqi, song types had to proceed according to a set sequence. Also, each scene in chuanqui has its own title. There are generally at least 30 scenes in chuanqi, and sometimes more than 50.
Though Gao Ming wrote The Lute using the loose form of nanxi, later editors rewrote the play to comply with the conventions of chuanqi. These conventions frequently carried over as Chinese drama took on distinct regional characteristics. Each region developed its own musical style, gradually leading to separate theatrical forms. The most important of these new regional styles were kunqu, also known as Shanghai Opera, and jingju, also known as Peking Opera.
Kunqu is the older form. Though it traces its origins back to the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, it reached its height in the late sixteenth century with the playwright Tang Xianzu. He composed his most famous play, The Peony Pavilion, in 1598. The play tells the story of Du Liniang, a 16-year-old girl who falls asleep in a garden and dreams of a young scholar giving her a willow branch. She falls madly in love with the young man in her dream and pines away and dies. Fortunately, the king of the underworld allows her to return to earth as a ghost, where she meets the scholar from her dream and gets him to help resurrect her.
A full version of the 55-scene opus would take about 20 hours to perform. Not surprisingly, The Peony Pavilion is generally performed in truncated form, though full-length versions have been attempted. In addition to the lovers' plot, the play involves a Tartar invasion and a host of secondary characters, many of them comic.
Jingju did not develop until the end of the eighteenth century, but it became extremely popular during the latter part of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Though jingju surpassed kunqu in popularity, it never created a literary masterpiece on the scale of The Peony Pavilion. Today, both forms exist in China and are recognized as an important cultural heritage.